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This Little Pitcher was Quiet

According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, “Little pitchers have big ears” is an idiom dating back to the 1500’s. It refers to children overhearing something they should not and likens the curved handle of a pitcher to the human ear.


This Little Pitcher was Quiet


As an only child living with four adults, I learned early that keeping quiet was a necessary survival tool. While my grandmother was always ready to answer questions or tell stories, flying under the radar of my mother's annoyance was best achieved by keeping my mouth shut.

On the bright side, staying silent, learning to fade into the background, meant that I was privy to all kinds of inappropriate topics of adult conversation. My favorite of these took place in the presence of my Aunt Catherine, my mother's older sister and the outspoken and undisputed bossypants of the family. Whenever Auntie came by for her regular Saturday afternoon visits or, better yet, when I encountered her during a visit to my friend Sylvia's house, I knew I was in for an earful. On these occasions, Auntie, Sylvia's mother Sonia, their friend, Gloria, and a revolving fourth would gather for canasta and gossip.

As soon as the game got underway and the chatter began in earnest, I'd abandon my playmates to take up my customary spot behind the toaster on the metal utility table. A spare kitchen chair, tucked in the corner was the perfect vantage point from which to observe the habits and behaviors of this quartet of married females. For a short while my presence would cause them to caution one another that "little pitchers have big ears," and to monitor their conversation accordingly. But I learned that if I sat still, didn't fidget and kept quiet, they'd forget I was there and get down to the interesting stuff.

The husbands of these women were friends, men who went to Camp together on the weekends. Camp was a cabin on a land grant along the Dead Diamond River christened Camp Fart-a-Lot. Here the men and their buddies, fished and hunted in season or tracked game in the off-season. Mostly, though, to hear their wives tell it, they drank and told stories and ate the copious amounts of food their women prepared for them. As far as I could make out, none of the woman had ever been to Camp, and my aunt, for one, swore never to step foot in that filthy place. I gathered the men were fine with this arrangement.

There were, of course, endless complaints about these husbands. My uncle was a jovial fellow fourteen years older than my aunt. He held an important position in town government, loved kids and animals, and was unfailingly devoted to my aunt. Nonetheless, when it was time to Complain about the Husband, Auntie had her grievances, namely Uncle's sketchy habits of personal hygiene. Of course, he bathed religiously on Saturday night. He knew better than to make an amorous approach to his beloved wearing last week’s underwear.

I was terrified of Sonia's husband. He worked in a shop in back of their house repairing machines. He'd stomp up to their second floor apartment at noon and a pall would fall upon the assembled. I was often there on school days for lunch as everyone in my house was working. Taciturn doesn't begin to describe Si Renaud. Everything about him was dark and brooding. He sat at table frowning over his plate, ate without comment, and retreated to his workshop having barely glanced at his wife or daughters. Had he ever spoken directly to me I probably would have wet my pants.

I don't remember Sonia saying much about her husband during the Complaint section of these Saturday afternoon conversations. Instead, she complained endlessly about one or another of her three daughters who carried on with their objectionable behaviors regardless of her threats to tell their father . They knew Sonia would end up taking the blame for whatever they’d done. It was her job to see they behaved.

Sitting in my eavesdropping corner, I learned that in general husbands were slobs in the bathroom and most were incapable of boiling an egg or brewing a decent cup of coffee. And god forbid one of them should wash a dish. Some husbands did, of course, possess redeeming qualities. They were hard workers or good to their mothers or still able to get it up on a Saturday night, whatever that meant.

There was talk, too, about the kids. Teenagers who broke curfew or flunked algebra or came home reeking of beer. There were the girls who “got into trouble and had to get married” and the boys who went out with these girls or ran off to join the Navy.

And there was talk of a strictly female nature. Late periods, painful cramps, sore breasts, water retention. Talk of weight gain and this damned girdle. Talk of neck wrinkles, sagging boobs and Playtex Living bras. Talk of Nice n' Easy hair color and does she or doesn't she or why doesn't she.

I learned much about human nature in general and the lives of women in particular on those Saturday afternoons while my aunt and her friends played canasta at the Formica table in Sonia’s kitchen. Mine was an education worthy of the Ivy League and it cost me nothing but my silence and a pair of Big Ears.


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